Crab license buyback gets a nibble
Only a fraction of Maryland's commercial crabbers responded to the state's offer to buy back their licenses. "Close to 500' crabbers bit on the state's offer to pay them to surrender their right to catch crabs for sale, according to Lynn Fegley, assistant fisheries director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
DNR had mailed buyback offers last month to 3,676 Marylanders holding "limited crab catcher" licenses, and they had until last Friday to respond. The licenses allow them to deploy up to 50 wire-mesh "pots" or an unlimited amount of baited line to catch crabs for sale. They cost $60 a year, but are automatically renewable and transferable.
The state has issued about 6,000 commercial crabbing licenses in all, but officials say only about 1,800 are actively fished. Fisheries managers say they need to retire a big chunk of those unused licenses to help ensure that the Chesapeake Bay's crab population continues to recover. If those inactive crabbers return to the water, they could overwhelm the crabbing restrictions the state has imposed to guard against overfishing.
Fegley acknowledged that the response to the state's buyback offer was "clearly short" of what DNR had hoped, but pointed out that "it’s the first time we’ve done something like this."
This is the state's second attempt to retire unused crab licenses. Last winter, the state had tried to "freeze" more than 1,000 limited crab catcher licenses that had not reported any catch in the previous five years, but withdrew that attempt amid a flurry of protests.
Some crabbers may have been confused by the terms of the state's buyback offer, Fegley said. Rather than offering crabbers a fixed price for their licenses, the state asked them to name the price at which they'd be willing to give up their crabbing permits. Officials then would pick the highest price they'd be willing to pay and then buy up all the licenses offered at that or lower prices.
Such "reverse auctions" have been used successfully before in a few other fisheries, where regulators wanted to reduce the threat of overfishing. But it's the first time one's been tried in the bay - though Virginia also is planning one.
Doug Lipton, a fisheries economist with the University of Maryland who's consulting with DNR, said he didn't think the response was that bad, considering the novelty of the deal.
"People just didn't know what this was, so they were holding back,'' he suggested.
Lipton predicted that more crabbers would be willing to sell their licenses if given a second chance, once they see what the state winds up paying. But many of the bids this time also were high and unlikely to be accepted, he said, and some were clearly protest bids, with prices in the multimillion-dollar stratosphere.
DNR expects to notify crabbers next week if their bids were accepted, Fegley said. After that, the state will mull its options. But Fegley noted that DNR plans to propose new regulations later this year aimed at limiting the ability of inactive crabbers to jump back on the water.
Crabbers who haven't reported any catch in years would likely be given a choice - come back, but limit your catch to males and lose the right to transfer the license, or continue to stay on shore until DNR declares the crabs have fully rebounded, and retain your right to transfer the license.
(Baltimore Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron)